Universal Credit – for men?

3 Feb

Last month I wrote a blog about the Prime Minister’s speech on supporting families, where he referred to parenting as a ‘job’, and families as ‘the best anti-poverty measure ever invented’. Where in all this material and professional concern, I asked, was an acknowledgement of caring work in family life?

Seeing the discussion of the projected impacts of Universal Credit on different family types, I have to ask the question again. For today’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that working single parents will lose the most income through the Universal Credit system, and second earners in couples will have reduced incentives to work, in contrast to the overall impact of the scheme, which will apparently do more to make work pay for recipients. While transitional arrangements will shield current claimants, the impact assessment looks at what will happen in the longer-term.

So why is this a gender issue? Well, in spite of increasing numbers of hands-on fathers and breadwinning women, 9 out of 10 single parents are still women, and dual-earning households most often have male chief wage earners. Secondary earners are often working part-time and doing most of the childcare in families. So we have two groups of working mothers (single parents, part-time employees) who are likely to find it hard to compensate for the reduced income or reduced incentives to move into or stay in employment, which Universal Credit will present. Because of their caring responsibilities, they are likely to find it difficult to increase hours or pay, in order to make up for any losses, alongside paying for additional childcare.

The government is likely to respond that the offer of 30 hours free childcare, along with rises in income tax thresholds, will help resolve these issues. But as I and many others have pointed out, the childcare proposals are underfunded, and quality childcare is least likely to be available in deprived areas, so that the poorest parents may have problems accessing it. And if you are amongst the lowest earners and/or work part-time, the tax thresholds may not make any difference to you. You will simply be left worse off, and your children will still need to be cared for.

Disincentives for second earners to work under Universal Credit are troubling because they may damage mothers’ future financial prospects. This is firstly because they make it less worthwhile to remain in work, so that more women may spend longer out of the workforce; and secondly because the Universal Credit system proposes making all payments to one person in every household, thus breaking the principle where child-related payments were made to mothers. This second feature may not matter if you are in a good relationship with access to a joint account, but it could be very disadvantageous where unsympathetic partners control access to family finances.

It appears then that the benefits of Universal Credit are not quite as universal as the name suggests. And without acknowledgement of the value – and constraints – of caring work, it is likely to give more credit to men’s work than to women’s.








Hard-working families or hard work in families?

11 Jan

We all know how much the government loves ‘hard-working families’ – during the election campaign you could place the phrase on your buzzword bingo card and be sure to contribute to a full house most days. And in the months since, with the spending review and the ongoing austerity programme, few days go by without reference to hard-working families, who are ‘doing the right thing’ and being rewarded for it with plaudits and ‘incentives’ in policies.

As for family and relationship support, David Cameron has made a speech today about enhanced funding for counselling for couples, and the launch of a more universal provision of parenting classes. He says that parenting is ‘the most important job we’ll ever have’ – and yet the work that goes on inside families – which means that our children and other loved ones are fed, clothed, nurtured, and supported to be useful members of society in their turn – does not seem to be the main concern here. There’s a bit of talk about discipline and control of behaviour, but the Prime Minister’s focus appears to be primarily economic – he goes on to say that:

‘Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one. Children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to experience poverty as those whose families stay together. That’s why strengthening families is at the heart of our agenda.’

So families are front and centre because they are a defence against poverty, not because functioning relationships are valuable in themselves? The cynic might say that families are to be buttressed piecemeal, to deal better with the shrinkage in public services which have been deeply cut …

It’s striking that the language around families has become so professionalised – parenting is a ‘job’ encompassing skills or services – ‘welfare, education and counselling’ – the word ‘care’ does not seem to have much prominence here. And yet caring is at the heart of the hard work that goes on inside families, it’s what keeps everybody going, and what enables people to go out into the world and do other useful things. You cannot resign from parenthood – nor are you promoted for doing it well. So it’s not a typical job at all. It’s about building and sustaining relationships over time. Something that caring may have in common with jobs in the labour market is that it’s a lot easier to put up with the bad days if you have enough money. Poverty makes the strains of caring more difficult to bear, and caring needs to be accommodated alongside paid work. If all the talk around families is about jobs, caring gets overlooked. That’s ironic, as many would say it’s what makes being in families worthwhile.

A (wonky) Christmas Cracker

18 Dec

Everyone loves a Christmas cracker – what could be better than a gift, a hat and a joke to share with your loved ones? So in the festive spirit I’ve imagined a wonky cracker of 2015, with contents from the world of gender and policy this year …..

The Gift:


Like all the best cracker gifts, Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is novel and shiny and looks great, but turns out to be a bit less robust than you first thought. The idea is great, but not enough has been spent on it, so its appeal is somewhat limited. FromApril this year, mothers have been able to transfer up to 50 weeks of leave to fathers, but the leave is only paid at a very low rate, so that not many families would find it affordable. The government estimates that only 2-8% of families will take the option up, while the rest look wistfully to Scandinavia where there are ‘daddy months’ of leave dedicated for fathers’ use only, and paid at a decent rate. The Nordic countries also have affordable, universal childcare – something which even the pledge of 30 hours free childcare for working parents in the UK cannot match. So if we do want more gender equality in care we’ll have to devote some funds for a proper present under the tree in future….


The Hat:

For the wonky Christmas cracker 2015, the only party hat is the hard hat, as worn by George Osborne on site trips during the election, and beyond. His decisions influence the spending, saving and borrowing of all of us. (You can tell he really likes it as the hard hat appears in cartoon form on his Christmas card).


There is an important gender dimension here too, as many argue that austerity measures applied to benefits and public services affect women most, due to lower earnings and greater caring responsibilities.


The Joke:

A mainstay of the Christmas cracker is the silly joke, recently updated for more modern society here. Regular readers will know of my interest in family policy, so from the new list, here’s a reminder that there have always been unconventional families, and refugees in search of shelter:.


 Merry Christmas and a Peace and Goodwill to all men and women!






Is Mark Zuckerberg really changing the game?

27 Nov

Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he will take two months paternity leave when his daughter is born, a move that has been widely hailed as game changer for family-friendly working and gender equality. As someone who has long argued for the benefits of paternity leave for men, women and children, it seems churlish to do anything other than high-five along with everyone else who has rushed to praise him, and to remind us of the importance of CEOs leading on culture change in the workplace.

But there is a but. Or rather two buts. The first is the length of the leave. Facebook has just announced that staff will be able to take four months leave following birth. So yet again we have the image of a figurehead taking less parental leave than the full entitlement available to staff – two months may be great progress on the amount of leave routinely taken by senior American fathers, but it still leaves the impression that taking full entitlement is optional, and there for the little people, rather than those at the top.

And the second ‘but’ relates to gender. Zuckerberg is a man, and like many before him he seems to be benefitting from the halo effect of doing anything related to family at all. I’m an equal opportunities type, so I think it’s only fair to raise the question of his shorter-than-full-entitlement leave, just as I did for Marissa Mayer. And I’ll bet you’ve heard a lot more about her announcement to take only two weeks leave than you have about Mr Zuckerberg’s decision. He has not been submitted to the same level of scrutiny as she was – albeit that at two weeks, her own length of proposed leave was much shorter, and will of course include personally giving birth. It’s interesting too that Zuckerberg announced his decision as a ‘very personal’ one. This is typical of tech culture’s privileging of individual choice. The two months paternity leave for Facebook’s CEO will only be a game changer for working men, if a few more of them examine their navels (or the protruding ones of their pregnant partners), and reach the same ’very personal’ decision. It seems a little ironic that culture change in a social media environment is apparently down to the accumulation of a series of personal decisions….

So while agreeing that Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to take leave is broadly a good thing, let’s not get carried away. He is doing it because he can – unlike the majority of US workers who have few leave entitlements, and may not be able to afford those that there are. His actions may make a difference to some other people influential enough to impact on the rest of us. And perhaps we shouldn’t overlook the point made to me when I noted my dismay at Marissa Mayer’s fortnight – ‘don’t forget Yahoo is in a bit of trouble she may not have much choice’, corporate watchers said. Facebook is not apparently in trouble and the CEO is taking half of his full leave entitlement. Do I hear the sound of one hand clapping?




The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.



Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.


Why are we waiting?

24 Sep

Politics, the diplomatic service and the law – three establishment professions – have all been in the news regarding their promotion of women.

First came the controversy over the composition of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet , which drew criticism because the top jobs shadowing ‘great offices of State’ were awarded to men: Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. Although the Shadow Cabinet is majority female, many expressed dismay that women are in relatively junior posts.

This version of gender balance by numbers, but not status, is a persistent issue. There have been similar criticisms made regarding women on boards, where numerical gender equality has frequently been achieved by offering women non-executive roles rather than the more powerful executive positions.

By contrast, in the middle pages of the Economist (page 35 or behind the paywall), I read that the French diplomatic corps has attained a record share of female ambassadors – one third – and has paid attention to prestige as well as numbers. The current French ambassador to London is a woman, as are strategically important ambassadors in Ukraine and Pakistan. Meanwhile, here in the UK , 19% of ambassadors are women and we have never sent a female ambassador to Washington D.C. or Paris – although we do now have a woman ambassador in Beijing. How have the French transformed the position of women in diplomacy? In 2012 they set a target of 40% senior public offices to be occupied by women by 2018. Here in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been behind other government departments in terms of senior female appointments, reflecting a longstanding male dominance. The marriage bar was only lifted for female diplomats in 1973. Like senior politicians and lawyers, senior female diplomats are less likely to be married and/or have children than their male counterparts. In recent initiatives, the Foreign Office has addressed issues of work-life balance creatively by offering job-share postings to married diplomats, or by offering neighbouring overseas positions. These are welcome developments, but may not address wider diversity issues for those with spouses in different professions.

Meanwhile over in the law, Lord Sumption, a member of the Supreme Court, has expressed his views regarding gender equality in the judiciary. He is concerned that ‘rushing’ to achieve women’s equality in the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ . A quarter of judges are currently female, and the proportion of women declines the further up the judicial hierarchy you go. Lord Sumption has suggested that the lack of women judges can be explained by women being perhaps less willing to put in the long hours : ‘as a lifestyle choice it’s very hard to quarrel with it’ he says. Analysis of women’s positon in the legal profession here and here suggests that there are issues of professional culture which can affect women, beyond any consideration of more flexible working patterns. Informal networking and mentoring are important for career progression, and are often less accessible and sustainable for women barristers than for men, in a profession full of senior men from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds.

Lord Sumption is reported as suggesting that we should be ‘patient’, and that it could take up to 50 years for there to be equal numbers of male and female judges; in politics we have reached the point where 29% of MPs are women, but it will take a further 50 years to reach parity at current rates of change. In this scenario, I can only quote Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary where ‘patience’ is defined as ‘a mild form of despair disguised as a virtue’.






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